Published October 28, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Duck days attract birders to lakes.”
2014 Update: Find another Bird Banter column about Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge published June 22, 2014 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and June 30 in this blog. It may be quickest to type in “Hutton Lake” in the search box at the top of the Home page.
By Barb Gorges
Great minds think alike, certainly the minds of the field trip chairs for Cheyenne-High Plains and Laramie Audubon Societies, Art Anderson and Rhett Good, respectively. Fall is a great time for duck watching and Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge is a great place to go. Thus, members of both chapters converged there Oct. 9.
It was a wonderful day to be outside. The dirt track of a road was almost completely dry. The wind was hardly enough to ripple the water and didn’t tear up my eyes when I peered through the spotting scope. Sunlight glinted off the Jelm Mountain observatory.
The refuge, southwest of Laramie, includes several lakes besides its namesake, all within practically a stone’s throw of each other. They lie out on the Laramie Plains with hardly a tree in sight.
The refuge lakes are part of a collection spread between the Medicine Bow Mountains to the west and the Laramie Range to the east. They are hollows blown out by the wind and filled with water naturally or with a little human assistance.
All birds that swim are not ducks, of course. The most abundant bird on the water was the American coot, more closely related to chickens than ducks. Completely black except for white bills, coots are easy to winnow out while searching for more interesting birds, but they can be fun to watch. Several were playing king of the hill on a pile of debris.
Ducks get easier to identify by October and November because they resume the brighter colors of the breeding plumage they discarded in May and June. Their summer feathers, called eclipse plumage, are drab.
Females are never easy to identify. Going by body shape is almost better than sorting through particular arrangements of brown feathers.
The easiest duck for me to pick out on this trip was the American wigeon. The light streak from the top of its bill up and over the top of its head was quite distinctive.
Someone pointed out a ruddy duck. If it hadn’t been holding its tail in that diagnostic, peculiar upright position, I’m sure I would have given up. Unlike the other duck species males, its breeding plumage season runs much later, March through August. Right now it is gray instead of ruddy colored.
The male green-winged teal were easier to pick out, sporting a wing-shaped patch of green over each eye. Unless they fly, you may not see the speculum, or patch, of green on each wing.
Other ducks observed included northern shoveler, ring-necked duck, canvasback, gadwall, lesser scaup, redhead and only a couple mallards. Another non-duck waterbird, eared grebe, also made an appearance.
The first birders to arrive at the first lake were able to identify black-bellied plover and a bald eagle before they flew off. When the rest of us arrived, the long-billed dowitchers and American avocets were still probing the shoreline unconcernedly. Someone identified a California gull.
At a second lake, a sharp-eyed birder noticed that the motionless lump sitting on the hillside opposite was a ferruginous hawk. As we moved on, a prairie falcon crossed our path. Later, a red-tailed hawk gave a nice performance. Northern harriers, however, were the most common hawk of the day.
Canada geese aren’t hard to identify, but every time a small flock flew over, we had to make sure they weren’t the sandhill cranes we kept hearing off in the distance. Finally, when we stopped on a high spot overlooking the last refuge lake, someone was able to scope out four tall, pale gray beings in a distant pasture feeding on insects, rodents, seeds, etc.
While all optic equipment was focused on the lakes, other terrestrial birds were also noted: horned lark, song sparrow and marsh wren.
We left the refuge to check out other Laramie Plains lakes, but one was back lit and by the time we got to Twin Buttes Lake, wind was chopping at the water and only gulls were circling round.
When I got home, the new issue of Wyoming Wildlife had arrived and perusing it, I came across mention of an online map of duck migration based on reports by hunters, www.ducks.org/migrationmap, on the Ducks Unlimited Web site.
Now that would be handy. I was thinking it might track migration so that I could find out how much earlier pintails and blue-winged teal migrate. But it isn’t very specific, has no archives, and it needs a lot more participants.
So, we’ll just have to get out and look for ourselves on local lakes, which I did the very next day, at Sloans Lake in Lions Park. With no one to turn to for authoritative identification, I scrutinized what I determined was a female ruddy. Three days later, birding with Cub Scouts, we scoped a bufflehead and a redhead, both ducks, though they don’t use that noun in their official common names.
A week later, Mark and I identified eared grebe, pied-billed grebe and more ruddy ducks.
Lions Park was designated a Wyoming Important Bird Area for a reason. It’s not just for mallards begging handouts. I’m looking forward to more trips around Sloans Lake to see what the season brings in.